Robbers of Romance

Review By Simon Baatz
Sunday, April 12, 2009


The True, Untold Story of Bonnie And Clyde

By Jeff Guinn | Simon & Schuster. 467 pp. $27


The Lives Behind the Legend

By Paul Schneider | Henry Holt. 382 pp. $27.50

On April 1, 1933, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker rented a two-bedroom apartment in the small town of Joplin, Mo. Clyde's elder brother, Ivan "Buck" Barrow, had driven to Joplin with his wife, Blanche, in a futile attempt to persuade Clyde to give up his life of crime and turn himself in. Buck and Blanche occupied one of the bedrooms; Bonnie and Clyde occupied the second, together with W.D. Jones, a small-time hoodlum who had joined the Barrow gang the previous Christmas.

Joplin was the perfect place for Bonnie and Clyde to lie low for a few weeks. It's in the southwestern corner of Missouri, near the borders with Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. The Missouri police had no authority outside the state, and if they discovered the Barrow gang, Bonnie and Clyde could evade capture by driving into any of three states.

Within two weeks the Joplin authorities suspected that something was wrong: Perhaps bootleggers had moved into the neighborhood? Five policemen, armed only with handguns, stopped by to investigate. Clyde and W.D. were in the garage checking the engine of their Ford V-8 roadster as two police cars pulled up. It was not a fair fight: The Barrow gang possessed massive firepower -- machine guns, high-powered shotguns and several Browning automatic rifles. Within minutes two policemen lay dying as Bonnie and Clyde, together with their three companions, roared down local roads toward freedom in Kansas.

The shoot-out at Joplin was a turning point in the history of the Barrow gang. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker had grown up in poverty in the slums of Dallas. Clyde had never held a steady job; Bonnie, 19 when she first met Clyde in 1930, had been deserted by her husband. Neither had any education worth the name, and their prospects were slight. As a teenager, Clyde had frequently been in trouble with the Dallas police for burglaries, and soon both he and Bonnie took up a life of crime.

In March 1932, they linked up with Ralph Fults and Raymond Hamilton to commit robberies throughout Texas and into neighboring states. Membership in the Barrow gang was always labile: Bonnie and Clyde intermittently recruited various crooks and gangsters who disappeared just as quickly as they arrived. This shifting cast of characters embarked on a long string of robberies of grocery stores, banks, garages, railroad depots and service stations while driving thousands of miles through Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, evading capture for two years.

But Joplin changed everything. The police discovered a cache of photographs among the belongings left behind, and these photos, published in newspapers throughout the United States, simultaneously caught the public's imagination and ended the relative anonymity of the gang's members. Pictures of Bonnie Parker holding a machine gun and leaning nonchalantly against a stolen automobile with a cigar clenched between her teeth were a sensation. Bonnie was something new -- a playful rebel, a bandit full of sex appeal -- and overnight she became a national celebrity.

The end was not long in coming. The governor of Texas ordered a concerted pursuit of the Barrow gang and obtained the cooperation of neighboring states. Police armed themselves with weapons that could match the gang's firepower and persuaded relatives of Henry Methvin, an associate of Clyde's, to give up information on the gang's whereabouts. Bonnie and Clyde died in a hail of bullets near Gibsland, La., on May 23, 1934.

Jeff Guinn's "Go Down Together" and Paul Schneider's "Bonnie and Clyde" have appeared on the 75th anniversary of the ambush and killing of the protagonists. Both authors aimed at a detailed history of the Barrow gang's short life. "Go Down Together" is the more straightforward of the two -- and the better for it. "Bonnie and Clyde" has extensive quotes to pull the reader into the action, but Schneider's habit of jumping from the past to the present and back again is disconcerting.

But the emphasis of both authors on the repetitive everyday activities of Bonnie and Clyde inhibits development of a dramatic narrative. Perhaps this is inevitable. Bonnie and Clyde weren't glamorous; they lived hand-to-mouth in a desperate attempt to survive, and the grubby reality of their daily existence was about as depressing as one could imagine.

Paradoxically, the excitement associated with Bonnie and Clyde has existed only in the imagination of newspaper reporters, movie directors and the public. Guinn makes a valiant effort to endow his story with suspense, but the task is too great. Bonnie and Clyde led utterly insignificant lives -- even their contemporaries John Dillinger and Charles (Pretty Boy) Floyd regarded them with contempt -- and only an account that deliberately went beyond the facts could make the Barrow gang appear romantic.

Simon Baatz is associate professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and author of "For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder that Shocked Chicago."

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